The simple dream of living in a pirate ship

On wacky Zillow listings, the one good thing left on the Internet

The internet of 2020 is pretty a bleak place. What was once a vibrant source of entertainment and interconnection and a force for societal progress [citation needed] is now mostly a wasteland, populated by zombie versions of publications you once loved churning out algorithmically-generated slideshows, political bots arguing with each other in an automated loop that will outlast the death of the sun, CNet articles about when you can expect to receive your next stimulus check, and supposedly-uplifting local news stories that quietly reveal horrifying truths about the state of our society. 

By my count, there are four actually-good things remaining on the internet: animal photos, that viral video of the guy longboarding and drinking cranberry juice while singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”, this newsletter, and wacky Zillow listings. 

I want to talk about that last one today.

There’s virtually nothing that will guarantee I stop what I’m doing and click a link more reliably than someone texting me a Zillow listing of a weird house.

They take so many forms, each a unique and beautiful snowflake of internet content: a modest and unassuming ranch home that seems completely normal until you get to the secret sex club hidden behind a bookcase in the basement. A condominium inexplicably decorated with empty beer cans purposefully affixed to every interior surface. A suburban house encrusted with a Versailles-by-way-of-Gatlinburg level of excess so baroque that viewing the images feels like staring into a Magic Eye painting at a mall kiosk in 1993. Each one is its own particular joy, made more so by not knowing what, exactly, the thing that you absolutely need to see in each one is or which slide it will reveal itself on. 

For as connected as we are by social media, for as often as certain home furnishings pop up—a common Wayfair rug or West Elm couch or IKEA cabinet seemingly shared across an entire generation—it’s still rare to get an honest and complete view of how other people live short of actually being invited over to their house. In these uncertain times, the Weird Zillow Listing may be the best kind of tourism available, a voyeuristic glee found in seeing the way someone else chose to live their life for a while.

A few days ago, one of these listings spread widely across my feed: a vaguely mission-style house in Riverside, California drenched in surprisingly-consistent pirate-themed excess throughout. I don’t know the backstory of this house; I highly doubt that I want to, as nothing fun on the internet has ever been improved by finding out more about the people behind it. I have full faith and confidence that you will soon tell me it is the home of a magnate who made their fortune processing endangered bison into barrel oil for guns that are used to shoot eagles, and I will feel sad for having enjoyed it.

Until then, I want to appreciate this bonkers house for what it is: it is the house of someone who had a clear dream and achieved it.

Yes, it’s a monument to gross materialistic excess. It’s a home bigger than any household needs, wildly unnecessary in every possible way. It’s a waste of resources and another symptom of our increasingly inequal society. We can acknowledge all of that and still appreciate what has happened here. This is not a stark white box, a barren, cold and lifeless museum space meant to convey its owner’s refined taste and seriousness by eschewing anything that could possibly bring a human joy. It is not an ostentation designed for Architectural Digest or for Instagram. It is neither a bold expression of current fashion nor a thoughtful curation of a consistent historical style.

It’s a f**king pirate ship, and I love it for that.

It is the house of someone who decided at some point in their life that they wanted to live inside a pirate ship, found enough money to do so, and then did it. If there is any juice remaining in the notion of an American Dream, this house represents it. It is the house of someone who got to their childhood dream and stopped there.

This person is surely rich—again, I cannot stress enough how much I do not want to know about the actual person behind it, but I will go ahead and define someone with a $1.8M home as rich—but they did not, presumably, follow the lead of the Rich Person Who Cannot Stop: the vastly wealthy CEO so propelled by vanity and validation that they must stage an ill-fated presidential run that burns a hundred million dollars for two hundred caucus votes, the beloved children’s book author who gets richer than the queen and spends her days burning off any remaining goodwill through overt bigotry, the failed real estate developer who fumbles into an position of incomprehensible power and can’t even manage to use it to keep himself safe.

They just built a pirate ship.

I’m speaking mostly tongue-in-cheek in my positive architectural assessment of this horrid mess of a home, but there lurks a truth behind my sarcasm. When I view something like this—or a beer can condo or a suburban Versailles or any of these nutso home listings—I am deeply jealous of the single-mindedness behind it. I wish that I could have no other goal than to live in such a specific and material way.

My dreams are a lot fuzzier and harder to achieve, and I suspect yours are too.

I have vague desires for fulfillment. I want to make something. I want to do good. I want to give my family the best life that I am able to while still living by a sense of general virtue and ethics. I want to create a nice place to call home. I want to be happy. These are all easy things to say broadly, but things you can spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what they actually entail.

I think it must be very nice to be the kind of person who just knows that they want to live in a pirate ship, because that’s a lot easier to achieve.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)